Lovejoy, a comet with a VERY long tail to tell

Mosaic image of Comet Lovejoy on Dec. 13 with a long tail showing numerous kinks, twists and knots from its interactions with the solar wind. Please click to explore and enjoy a MUCH larger version. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

In case you haven’t seen this photo, all ll I can say is … AMAZING. Austrian astrophotographer Gerald Rhemann photographed Comet Lovejoy on Dec. 13 with a tail at least 20 degrees long. That’s more than 40 full moons side by side! The tiny version of the photo I’ve posted only hints at the incredible structures in the comet’s blue gas tail. Click the image to see the monster version. See what I mean?

The kinks, twists and blobs tell the tale of a tail flayed and hammered by the solar wind. Gases like carbon monoxide released from the comet’s nucleus as it vaporizes in sunlight are ionized (electrified) by the sun’s ultraviolet light and form the blue-tinted ion tail. Changing┬ámagnetic fields embedded in the sun’s solar wind stream by and interact with the ionized gases, sculpting bizarre shapes and multiple streamers. Like a wind sock, gas tales belie the wind’s strength, speed and direction.

Austrian astrophotographer Gerald Rhemann with his 12″ f/3.6 telescope used to shoot Comet Lovejoy. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

Toward the top of the photo and roughly parallel to the gas tail look for the smooth, pale yellow dust tail. Dust from the comet, released along with the gas, gets pushed back behind the comet’s head by the pressure of sunlight to form a separate tail defining the comet’s curved orbit.

Since dust is neutral, the solar wind doesn’t mess with it like the ionized (electrified) gases in the ion tail.

Lovejoy’s tail will likely grow even longer as the comet heads toward perihelion (closest approach to the sun) on December 23 and solar heating intensifies.

Unfortunately, the comet has been slowly moving away from Earth and slowly fading since late November.

This map shows the sky facing east-northeast about two hours before sunrise. Comet Lovejoy’s position is shown every 3 days through Dec. 30. Click for large version. Created with Chris Marriott’s SkyMap program

At the moment, Lovejoy’s making its way across the constellation Hercules and best viewed in the morning sky just before the start of dawn when it stands some 30 degrees above the eastern horizon. For observers in mid-northern latitudes, Hercules is also visible very low in the evening sky with the comet just 10 degrees high and dropping lower by the night.

Although compromised by moonlight, it’s still visible in binoculars and small telescopes glowing around magnitude 6. In about a week, the moon will be a crescent and much less of a bother. The tail will be much more obvious at that time.

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About astrobob

My name is Bob King and I work at the Duluth News Tribune in Duluth, Minn. as a photographer and photo editor. I'm also an amateur astronomer and have been keen on the sky since age 11. My modest credentials include membership in the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) where I'm a regular contributor, International Meteorite Collectors Assn. and Arrowhead Astronomical Society. I also teach community education astronomy classes at our local planetarium.

11 thoughts on “Lovejoy, a comet with a VERY long tail to tell

  1. Bob,
    Assuming my sky program is not configured incorrectly, isn’t Lovejoy visible in the early evening sky, (6:20pm central), for those that are not early risers? I see it on my maps but have not been out to confirm it due to clouds.

    Bob

    PS……great site…..many, many thanks! :)

    • Hi Bob,
      You’re correct, but the comet is only 10 degrees high tomorrow evening at the end of twilight and getting lower by the day. On the other hand, it’s 30 degrees high in the morning sky just before the start of morning twilight. I chose to go with the morning reference for ease of viewing. For the sake of completeness however, I’ll add an evening time to the blog. Thanks!

    • Clear & Cold would be nice. New England has had snow, rain and cloudy days in between storms. About once a week we have clear one to check out the comet and I overslept. Hoping for much better conditions in the coming days I have off. We are overdue for a real good comet like Hale-Bopp. No trouble seeing that one, no charts, small viewing windows, you just looked up and was there. Too easy. >NEMike

      • NEMike,
        I loved the ease of seeing Hale-Bopp. I’d just take the camera and tripod and wander to some scenic location, frame a picture and shoot a short time exposure with a wide angle lens.

        • Good News ! A clear cold Christmas morning and Lovejoy was easy to find in the sky as in the chart. (sometimes the charts are not to scale) How much longer will it be visible with binoculars ? Snow this morning (12/26) but should be clear until Sunday.>NEMike

          • Hi NEMIKE,
            Lovejoy is still around mag. 6 and should remain visible in 10×50 binoculars for at least a few more weeks. Maybe longer depending on your sky conditions. I can usually spot comets down to mag. 8.5 in binocs.

        • Yes Hale-Bopp was too easy. My ride home from work and there it was. Stand in my driveway or on my deck and there it was. Now I live in a location surrounded by trees. Any target I look at near the horizon requires me to drive a clearing, a farm or to the shore. However, when I find what I’m looking for under the darkest skies I can find away from light pollution it is very satisfactory. All your info & maps help a great deal. > NEMike

  2. I’m again amazed of the Rhemann’s pic. It’s done with expensive equipment but also enormous experience. Particularly determinant is the fast astrograph (f/2.8) which, together with a low noise camera, allowed to do the individual shots in just 5mins, or the LRGB sessions in 20 minutes each. This “freezed” well the comet’s motion blur on the starfield at such a high resolution, and (in the about one hour available to shoot the comet on dark sky at decent altitude) allowed the time to do the mosaic. Really excellent.

    PS I suggest to check the link on the comet’s pic as it doesn’t work.

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